Sandymoor School – student engagement with technology

The following is a guest post from Gerald Haigh.

Do you think that technology is a sure-fire way of turning young people on to learning?

Certainly in the early days of computing in school, which I remember well, we worked on the assumption that the computer would motivate children just by being there. That, in fact, is how we justified its use for tasks that could just as well be done with a pencil and sheet of paper.

We were soon aware, though, that children saw things differently. Yes, they wanted to use the computer (one per class at that stage) but the fact that they were saying things like,

‘Can I play on the computer now, Sir?’ indicated how they saw its place in the scheme of things.

I was reminded of that by a conversation I had just before Christmas with Andrew Howard, principal of Sandymoor School in Runcorn, recently designated a Microsoft Global Showcase School.

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We were talking about that same issue – when, whether, and how, children are turned on to learning by technology.

‘My experience is that they love it initially,’ he says. ‘If you give a child a computer they try to do with it what they know. But as soon as you try to direct them to do something else, they show a lack of initiative, and a resistance to engage.’

He recalls some of the problems he found with the introduction of VLEs a decade or so ago.

‘All the big players were coming up with student-centred features, child-friendly logos and so on. The students didn’t really take to that, and never really have. A number will always be adopters but the vast majority are reluctant to access ICT in a school environment and it doesn’t matter how much you try to glam it up.’

The reason, surely, is that for young people technology is primarily a means of social interaction, a way of hanging out together, and so, really, it belongs to them, jealously guarded. For a school to move in on that and attempt to turn it to classroom advantage might be like a teacher walking up to an actual street or playground huddle and handing out curriculum-related discussion topics. The result, in both real and virtual cases, would be a rapid melting away of the group.

Any approach, says Andrew, has to be a whole lot subtler than that. Sandymoor uses Office365 extensively – in fact it underpins all of the school’s learning activities, providing class sites and home-school collaboration as well as streamlining administration and management. Within Office 365 is the SharePoint application ‘Newsfeed’, intended as a collaboration network. What Andrew did was switch that off and replace it with ‘Yammer’ -- but, crucially, he did it with no announcement. All students saw was the sudden appearance of a new collaboration tool that was not being pushed at them by their teachers and so they – and teachers -- began to use it, creating groups among themselves. But as Andrew says,

‘It has the advantage that to use it you have to log in to Office 365. That brings the social environment into the classroom which has enabled us to take the classroom into the social space.’

The key, says Andrew, is not to talk down to the students in terms of their ICT engagement.

‘We treat our young people like young adults, giving them access to enterprise level ICT systems and building our student interaction on the basis of them being professional people. That’s how they use office 365 – to check emails, calendar and, along the way, their social engagement with Yammer.’

I asked Andrew, too, about progress during the short time following Sandymoor’s award of Showcase School status.

‘The students see it as a major buzz – a reinforcer of the fact that they are in a school that wants to work in a technological environment. My Microsoft Innovative Educator Experts (MIEE) have stepped up to the mark and we are forefronting a lot more technology since we returned from the celebration on December 5th – we’ve made sure that all have done the hour of code, for example.’

One aspect of this, to which Andrew alluded in a discussion on December 5th, is how to encourage less confident staff to engage fully with ICT. The problem, as he sees it, is not so much fundamental unwillingness as a feeling that they don’t have the time to make what will be, for some, a fundamental change.

Andrew clearly feels it crucial, though, that there can be no opt-outs, and that all staff are fully signed up to the school’s vision of technology-supported learning.

‘So,’ he says, ‘Over the coming weeks there will be a massive amount of training for staff, and on the basis of that there’ll be an expectation that staff will engage with technology as a matter of course, and that this will become a factor that enters into the discussion about performance and pay.’

Just before Christmas, Andrew caught the attention of Microsoft’s Global Vice President for Education, Anthony Salcito, and now features in a long and fascinating interview on Anthony’s ‘Daily Edventures’ blog which, each day, highlights a ‘global hero in education’.

It’s well worth reading for what we learn about Andrew’s personal journey from bullied schoolboy (some fascinating insights there) to Imperial College and on into teaching and leadership. There’s also more on student engagement and the Sandymoor vision generally.

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